Readers’ Bootcamp

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“Bootcamp” WorldArtsMe

Perhaps the title involves a bit of hyperbole. But if we are indeed in a battle to find space in our lives for attentive reading amid the distractions of modern technological life, it might involve something akin to bootcamp, where in a short space of weeks, civilians are turned into soldiers, and where civilian habits that might get you killed in short order are exchanged for habits that enable you to live life under fire.

Perhaps the drastic metaphor of bootcamp has a place. At one time, our shopkeepers and farmers read Shakespeare, The Bible, Plato, Aristotle, John Locke and others. John Adams traveled from town to town with a “poet in his pocket.” The great ideas that shaped our republic came from people who weren’t academics, but who kept company in the books they read with great ideas. At one time in this country, workers’ Athenaeums  were popular for people who wanted to improve themselves and their understanding of the world. Apart from some things like TED talks, much of the content we have online that occupy much of our time are tweets that amuse or arouse us, memes, pictures and news of often-dubious and editorially biased origin. To break our addiction to these distractions to recover the experience of deep, extended and attentive reading might require something of a “bootcamp” experience in our lives.

Here are some starters I might suggest:

  • Figure out a time when you are mentally sharpest and carve out a space of that time to read. Maybe to start, decide on the 15-20 minutes you will dedicate to reading, or a goal to read 10 pages during this sharpest time.
  • Now, the hard part. Put yourself as far away from any screens including your smartphone as possible. You will find your ability to focus immeasurably enhanced by doing this.
  • At this point, I would strongly discourage reading on any tablet that is not a dedicated e-reader, and would favor using a physical book. Any piece of technology with other apps will provide distractions that will undermine the goal of attentive, undistracted reading.
  • Don’t start with a dense philosophical tome by Kant or Heidegger. Pick a genre and writer you like and start reading.
  • If you already have the book at hand, so much the better provided it doesn’t violate the previous suggestion!
  • If you don’t have something to read, I would suggest going either to your local library or a brick and mortar bookstore. If you want to cultivate a reading habit, you want to make friends with the people in these places who are highly motivated to help you find good books, because you will keep coming to them for recommendations! Besides, would you rather get a book recommendation from an algorithm than a friend?
  • Speaking of friends, find a book buddy, maybe someone else is on the same journey to recovering literacy that you are, that you can meet up with to talk about the books in your lives. This can also help as you graduate to books that require more mental effort to understand. I’ve often found that great books demand multiple minds to really grasp their full meaning and I see so much more when I read with friends.
  • Keep a book journal where you record the books you have read, and key thoughts you want to remember from those books, and how, if at all, the book has changed your thinking. Online tools like Goodreads make this convenient as long as you don’t get distracted from actually reading. (That’s really how this blog was born–as a way to remember what I read as well as to talk about books with others).

I’ll stop there other than suggesting that you might try working up to the goal of an hour of focused reading a day. Actually, I think if you follow some of these ideas, you will find yourself wanting to read more and stopping will be the problem.

Tomorrow, I will talk a bit more about what to read.

The Battle to Read?

Reading-books

By Omarfaruquepro (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0] via Wikimedia Commons

This week, Philip Yancey posted a blog “Reading Wars” that was picked up in the Washington Post under the title “The Death of Reading is Threatening the Soul.” Yancey begins the post noting the change in his own reading practices, from about three books a week (about what I typically read) to much less, and that he is reading far fewer works that require hard work.

He attributes this to the internet, and the tendency to read a paragraph or two and move along to something else, and to skip around from one thing to the next, and be easily distracted. He also notes the constant interruptions of emails and other messaging that wants a reply now.

He quotes a Charles Chu who estimates that it would take approximately 417 hours over a year to read 200 average sized books. Chu is walking proof that it’s possible, having read 400 books in the past two years. He notes that the average American spends 608 hours on social media and 1642 hours watching television. It is not a question of time.

Rather it is a question of seduction. And this is where the battle to read comes in. Between distracting notifications on smartphones, and the temptation to go from there to different social media can consume a lot of time. It’s mind candy, kind of fun really. There’s a video–was that really ten minutes? It lures us away from our books, and makes it harder to concentrate when we sit down to read them.

Yancey joins a chorus of people from Senator Ben Sasse who is trying to cultivate practices of reading in his family to Rod Dreher in his Benedict Option who are urging us to lay aside, or even fast from our technology to make time for deep reading of the printed page. Many business are arguing for setting aside at least an hour a day for reading.

Why does it matter? Isn’t this time one could more productively employ elsewhere? Personally, I reached a decision in my forties, that having passed the peak of my physical powers, I needed to take more time to read, and think, and pray if I was going to be spiritually and intellectually vital and fresh in my work. I could not just keep recycling what I learned in college and the first years out in the work force. I was changing, the world was changing, and the advance of years brought new questions, and questioned previous assumptions.

More than that, I came to realize that there really is something grand about this collective project called humanity–noble and sometimes hubristic dreams, great ideas like the freedom of conscience, and not so great ones like race theory, and great works of art and literature, that capture in a particular piece aspects of the universal human experience. I came to discover in the Christian faith not only the two to three millenia-old sacred scriptures that are our rule of faith and practice, but that conversation of great minds from Augustine and Athanasius to Barth and Niebuhr and Kuyper that sought to understand and apply these truths to their times. Many contemporary writers and speakers, as compelling as they seemed, were pretty thin fare by comparison.

Most of all, what I think I am trying to do as I read is to live an attentive life. I want to listen for God’s voice in the things that I read, and to be open to the possibility that a word of scripture, or an idea on a page might transform my perspective, question my ways of doing things, or lead to insights into how to live or work more in sync with God’s workings in the world. More than that, if God is the real hero of this story and mine but a small supporting role (and even that is something), so much of reading is a walk in the wonder of understanding the works and ways and majesty of God, whether in a book on the latest discoveries in physics, a history of a people, or a biography of a leader of the past.

There is so much more to life than what can be expressed in 140 characters or displayed on my smartphone screen. If we are dissatisfied with the banality of our public discourse, then perhaps a good beginning is to attack our own lack of attention to deep reading of ideas that matter. We might even discover that there is great joy to be found in a rich interior life. We might want such people to be leaders in our communities, and maybe our nation. We might even become them.

In the next days, I want to discuss more of what we can do to give substantive reading a greater place in our lives, and some practices and sources that can get us started.

 

Review: Grieving a Suicide

Grieving a Suicide

Grieving a Suicide (Second Edition), Albert Y. Hsu. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017.

Summary: A narrative of how the author learned to deal with the trauma of his father’s suicide, the questions it raised, and the movement through grief toward healing.

Albert Hsu is a survivor, and part of a large group of similar survivors. Following a stroke, his father descended into depression as he coped with rehabilitation. One night, he went into his own bedroom and took his life. Hsu is part of a group that extends to many of us who have lost someone we love, a friend, a family member, a work colleague, when they chose to take their lives. He writes,

“In most literature on the topic, “suicide survivor” refers to a loved one left behind by a
suicide—husband, wife, parent, child, roommate, coworker, another family member, friend—not a person who has survived a suicide attempt. It is no coincidence that the term survivor is commonly applied to those who have experienced a horrible catastrophe of earth-shattering proportions. We speak of Holocaust survivors or of survivors of genocide, terrorism, or war. So it is with those of us who survive a suicide. According to the American Psychiatric Association, ‘the level of stress resulting from the suicide of a loved one is ranked as catastrophic—equivalent to that of a concentration camp experience.’

. . .

Such is the case for survivors of suicide. We have experienced a trauma on par psychologically with the experience of soldiers in combat. In the aftermath, we simply don’t know if we can endure the pain and anguish. Because death has struck so close to home, life itself seems uncertain. We don’t know if we can go on from day to day. We wonder if we will be consumed by the same despair that claimed our loved one. At the very least, we know that our life will never be the same. If we go on living, we will do so as people who see the world very differently” (p. 10).

Hsu’s unfolds the survivor experience in three parts. The first is the particular experience of grief one goes through when suicide strikes. With many examples from his own experience and those of other survivors, he traces a journey from shock, through turmoil, lament, relinquishment, to remembrance. In shock there is the numbness that may only be able to say “I don’t think I can handle anything right now. I need you to take care of some things for me.” Turmoil is going through a jumble of emotions from grief to abandonment, from failure to guilt, anger, and fear, and even a temptation to self-destructiveness, and a distraction that cannot focus. Lament gives voice to the grief, including acknowledging the reality of the suicide. What I most appreciated is the idea that to lament is to express one’s love for one you have lost. Relinquishment involves facing death as friend, enemy, intruder, and yet that death does not have the final word for those who believe. The chapter on remembrance was perhaps one of the most beautiful in the book as Hsu begins with how his pastor spoke about his father at the funeral, how he began to discover aspects of his father’s life he never knew, and how he created ways to remember his father, not to keep him alive, which he was not, but to honor him, and to give thanks to God for his life.

The second part of the book explores three hard questions survivors struggle with. The first is “why did this happen?” Hsu not only explores the factors that contribute to suicide but also the underlying reason we ask this question, which is because we wonder what we might have done differently. The second question is, “is suicide the unforgiveable sin?” Hsu would propose that this does not put a person beyond God’s forgiveness and the hope of eternal life. The third is, “where is God when it hurts?” Here Hsu talks about the biblical portrayal of a God who enters deeply into suffering, ultimately in Christ, who, as hard as it is to believe or feel, is with us and suffers with us.

The final part of the book explores life after suicide. He explores the spirituality of grief, as we struggle to find purpose in suffering, move from despair to hope, and the experience of healing, but never closure. He writes most helpfully about the healing community, and what is helpful and unhelpful to say and do. Here he also addresses what the church can do in growing in suicide awareness and prevention. Finally, he concludes with some of the lessons of suicide for his own life.

This is a profoundly thoughtful, personal, and gentle book. One senses as one reads that Hsu knows other survivors, people in pain, are reading this book. He gives them permission to put it down if it is just too hard. He carefully names the places of pain, those he faced in his own life. He helps survivors know that what they are feeling and what they are asking are entirely appropriate to the trauma they have faced. He does something more. Having allowed people to openly own the pain they are experiencing, he shares, not tritely but honestly out of his own experience, the journey to hope, and even the hope that one day, they like him may become wounded healers for others.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: What Happens After You Die

What Happens After You Die

What Happens After You Die Randy Frazee. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2017.

Summary: An exploration of the Bible’s teaching on what happens to us after death, if we know Christ or if we don’t, both before he returns, and after.

Randy Frazee is a pastor, seminary trained, and a teacher of the Bible. Yet when his mother died of pancreatic cancer, and even though she was a believer, Frazee was confronted with a profound challenge to his faith. In the beginning of this book he writes:

“The more I thought about it, the more I struggled to believe that at the moment my mother breathed her last breath, her spirit exited her body and went to be anywhere, let alone with the Lord. I just didn’t have a mental model for this concept, and yet we Christians, base our entire hope on this reality. I know some say they have, but I have never personally met a spirit being. Did such beings really exist?

My mind continued to wander without permission. Even if life after death was true, and a person’s spirit did exit the body, the idea of a naked spirit entering into heaven, floating on clouds forever, and continually singing worship songs–maybe with earned wings, like Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life–just didn’t seem all that compelling to me. It was certainly better than the scriptural alternative, but it was still not something I craved.

‘I don’t believe in heaven.’ I whispered” (p. xv).

This led to an intense time of searching the Bible for answers, and this book is the product of his search. He begins with the question his mother asked him on her deathbed, “Is Jesus enough?” He explores the questions of works and faith concluding that faith in Christ’s saving work is indeed enough.

Then he moves on to the questions of the afterlife, breaking his exploration into two parts–life in between (before the return of Christ) and life forever (after the return of Christ, the resurrection and final judgment). In each case, he considers the destiny of those who have put faith in Christ, and those who do not know Christ. He does not go where scripture does not, with regard to life in between, or the intermediate state, about which scripture says little. He says that our spirits either go on to be with God in Christ if we have believed, or to Hades, the place where those who do not know Jesus await judgment.

Following the return of Christ, he teaches that the unrighteous will face the judgment where the books recording all of what they have done in their lives are opened. By their refusal of Christ and their deeds, they are destined for “the lake of fire.” Frazee leaves it an open question as to whether this is everlasting punishing (eternal conscious punishment) or everlasting punishment (annihilation), indicating that there are thoughtful biblical scholars who affirm each of these possibilities, neither of which are particularly desirable!

For the believer, the destiny is written in another book, the book of life. It means new bodies, life not “up there” but “down here” in a new creation, and the new city God will establish and make his home.  Rather than ethereal spirits floating on clouds, we will be embodied creatures in God’s new heaven and earth with work to do. Frazee then concludes the book with a short chapter on “life now”–how we live as people of faith and witnesses to hope until that time.

Each of the major sections concludes with a question and answer section addressing questions ranging from “are there such things as ghosts?” and “Is there such a thing as purgatory or Limbo?” (he would argue there are not) to questions about rewards, pets, marriage, resurrection bodies, and food in the new creation. One of the most interesting was a question of whether we would retain memories, particularly of regrets or griefs, in the new creation. He suggests that the wiping away of tears involves a wiping of memories. I am not so sure, because of how significant our memories are to who we are. I wonder, rather if the thought is the healing of memories, where they remain, but no longer grieve us. After “life now” he includes questions on guardian angels (yes, we do have them), cremation, predictions about Christ’s return, and life after death or near death experiences.

The book not only references the scriptures Frazee studied throughout but includes a section at the back of just the texts, organized by his chapter headings. There is also a discussion guide for small groups.

Frazee gives us a readable, very personal discussion of these matters. It is ideal for anyone from young believer to someone really coming to terms with the question of the afterlife and our eternal destiny. It is straightforward rather than nuanced. Apart from the discussion of eternal punishment versus punishing, he doesn’t discuss differing scholarly views. He is pastoral and honest at the same time. While he thinks pastors should not either assure people that a loved one who as far as anyone knows did not know Christ is with the Lord (or not), he takes the approach that we must trust the Lord with this, and “this is what your loved one would want you to know.” Indeed, this book explores life’s ultimate questions, offering the fruit of Frazee’s own search on these vitally important matters.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Grandpa’s Garage

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Memories of other times, Photo by Bob Trube (c) 2017.

There were several summers where my dad was commuting between Youngstown and Baltimore, and it was a help to my mom for me to spend part of the summer with my grandpa and grandma Trube. Recently, we were at an antique mall and saw the scene in the photo, and it brought memories flooding back of one of my favorite things at my grandparents.

My grandpa’s garage was not only the place where he sheltered one of his Chevys, but it was also a fascinating museum of odds and ends. Yes there were oil cans and tobacco cans like the picture. There garden and lawn tools, a workbench, and that faint smell of gas and oil and grease.  And pinned or hanging on the walls were all sorts of memorabilia from all the places he and my grandmother had traveled to. Soap from a motel. A placemat from a restaurant, a matchbook from another. A tourist brochure from Knott’s Berry Farm. A program from a baseball game. A fold-out map from a gas station. There were old license plates from different vehicles he’d owned. Sometimes, I’d just go in there and ask him about one object after another, fascinated with the interesting life he’d led.

When he got tired of answering my questions, he’d find a tennis ball, and we throw the ball back and forth in the driveway. I had coke bottle glasses and not the greatest eye-hand coordination and over those times, I got better, even while I imagined myself as my pitching hero, Sandy Koufax.

At other times, he would back up his Chevy Impala out of the garage, and we would wash the car together. Mostly, he let me wash the wheels and scrub the white wall tires and scrub the chrome while he washed and polished the body. Then we’d stand back together and he would say something like, “looks like new.” He loved his cars and loved to drive. I went on my first real trips with him, to Pittsburgh to see the Pirates at Forbes Field, and, one summer, to Gettysburg.

Usually when we were done, we were thirsty. I think my grandpa probably had a beer while my grandmother served up some of her ice cold homemade lemonade. Whatever we had sure hit the spot.

Those were wonderful summers, too few to be sure before first my grandmother, then my grandfather passed. It’s funny how memory works, how a display of old stuff in an antique store brings memories of over fifty years ago flooding back. My grandfather’s garage was a window into his life, and a place of companionship where I got to know my father’s father. In one sense, it was nothing special, yet it meant the world. Grandpa’s garage.

Review: The Gatekeepers

the gatekeepers

The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency, Chris Whipple. New York: Crown, 2017.

Summary: A study of the White House Chiefs of Staff, from the Nixon through Obama administrations, and how critical the effective execution of this role is to an effective presidency.

During the final weeks of the Bush (43) administration, an unprecedented meeting took place in the office of Josh Bolten, Bush’s last Chief of Staff. Eleven of the thirteen living former Chiefs showed up (absent were James Baker and Erskine Bowles). People like Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Leon Panetta, Howard Baker, and Andy Card came together with incoming Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel to share the benefit of their experience.

Chris Whipple uses the narrative of this meeting as a starting point of a study of the critical role the Chief of Staff plays that marks a Presidency as effective or not, as able to skirt dangerous pitfalls, or tumble into them. His description and quotes of Leon Panetta from this meeting captures the critical essence of the book’s thesis:

“Leon Panetta was probably the most popular person in the room. The son of Italian immigrants, jovial and outgoing, he was equally at home on his walnut farm in Monterey, California, and in the corridors of the West Wing. But as Bill Clinton’s second chief–replacing McLarty–Panetta had wielded an iron fist inside a velvet glove. When he arrived, Clinton’s presidency was on the ropes, his ambitious agenda threatened by fights over gays in the military, the Whitewater scandal, and other distractions.  The damage was self-inflicted, caused by Clinton’s indiscipline and sloppy staff work. Panetta stepped in and brought discipline and focus to the White House–enabling Clinton to regain his traction and go on to win a second term. Now it was Panetta’s turn to tutor Obama’s incoming chief: ‘Always, always be straight and honest with the president of the United States,’ he said. ‘Always tell him what he may not want to hear–because frankly, a lot of people in the White House will always tell the President what he wants to hear’ ” (p. 7).

Whipple paints a portrait of effective chiefs as those who combine candor, focus, organizational discipline, the confidence of their president, emotional intelligence, and a tireless work ethic. Too friendly with the president, and they often end up shielding him from essential truths that can bring down a presidency. Too indisciplined or administratively unskilled, and they squander the opportunities of leadership. Too harsh, and they alienate the people who they need to work with to enact a president’s vision. Most of all, they are skillful gatekeepers, making sure those who need to see the president do, while protecting the president’s energies and focus and time to think, and from powerful individuals who would unduly influence a president outside established executive branch processes.

The study begins with H.R. Haldeman, who in fact shaped the staff system that every effective chief has practiced. It was lapses in Haldeman’s discipline, allowing Erhlichman and the plumbers free reign, as well as his unwillingness to tell Nixon the hard truth about Watergate at the start, that brought down his presidency. Strong staff leadership by Rumsfeld and Cheney enabled Ford to nearly defeat Jimmy Carter, despite the tarnish of Watergate and the Nixon pardon. Carter’s decision to be his own chief of staff for the first years of his presidency, and the influence of Jordan and Powell that reinforced the indiscipline that resulted weakened his presidency. Only bringing in Jack Watson, the disciplined yet sociable ex-Marine, established some order, but too little, too late. James Baker was probably key to the presidency of Ronald Reagan, as well as recovery momentum in the later Bush (41) presidency. Baker brought all the skills discussed to provide a president inexperienced internationally with the counsel needed to shrewdly confront the Soviet threat. Later, Ken Duberstein was the chief who encouraged Reagan to retain the most famous words (against State Department advice) for which Reagan is remembered when he said at the Brandenburg Gate, “Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”

Mack McLarty was Clinton’s first chief, and as a close friend of Clinton, presided over chaos, that was only reversed when he was replaced by Panetta. In the Bush (43) presidency, the likable Andy Card was no match for Bush’s Vice President Dick Cheney. It was obvious that Bush didn’t place the same confidence in him as in Cheney, which Whipple connects to the failures of in the decision to invade Iraq, over the reservations of Secretary of State Colin Powell, whose reputation was tarnished as victory gave way to chaos and a prolonged and costly occupation. Again, after Rahm Emmanuel left to run for mayor of Chicago, Bill Daly illustrated the pitfalls of a weak chief, in contrast to Denis McDonough, who helped Obama keep his political promises through executive order when faced with a recalcitrant Congress.

The book also underscores how critical it is that presidents choose strong chiefs they trust with the requisite skills and qualities of character. Whipple observes that this may be especially important with Donald Trump, as an outsider with limited political experience. It is an interesting question whether Reince Priebus enjoys the president’s confidence and is able to exercise the gate-keeping and organizational disciplines necessary to an effective presidency. If Whipple is right, it seems to me that one of the most important lessons President Trump can learn is getting the right person in this position and then being willing to listen to that person.

Before reading Whipple’s account, I thought of the Chief of Staff as just another member of the President’s inner circle, but I hadn’t reckoned with the importance of this position in the modern presidency where economic policy vies with natural disasters, human tragedies, and international drama on a daily basis. To execute vision, to maintain focus when faced with dozens of possible priorities, to keep “teams of rivals” in harness rather than going rogue, to be both the needed sounding board, and the honest voice are critical ingredients in helping presidents be effective. It also takes a rare blend of leadership and humility. As one of the chiefs remarked, the danger of the office is to emphasize the “chief” part (as Donald Regan did), rather than the “of staff” part. Whipple’s book helps us appreciate this rare blend, and the figures who have served us well, or less well, in this role.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through Blogging for Books. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: God and the Faithfulness of Paul

god and faithfulness of paul

God and the Faithfulness of PaulChristoph Heilig, J. Thomas Hewitt, and Michael F. Bird, eds. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017.

Summary: A collection of papers assessing N. T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God by scholars from a number of fields of theological study, with a concluding response from N. T. Wright.

In 2013, N. T. Wright published his 1700 page masterwork on Pauline theology, Paul and the Faithfulness of God (hereafter PFG). Since this time, the work has spawned numerous reviews, other scholarly works, and an extended response from N. T. Wright, Paul and His Recent Interpreters, (reviewed here). What distinguishes this work, which comes to half the length of Wright’s, is that it represents assessments of scholars who are specialists in a number of the fields upon which Wright draws in his work, from Jewish studies, to exegesis, to biblical and systematic theology. Furthermore, noting that gap between English and German scholarship on Paul, this work brings together scholars from both.

The work is broken into five parts with a concluding epilogue in which Wright responds (in a mere 57 pages!) to the contributors. An online version of the Table of Contents may be found here. I will not try to discuss all thirty essays as well as Wright’s response but rather what were for me some of the most salient essays, realizing this does not do justice to the high quality of others.

Part One consists of a single chapter by Benjamin Schliesser that situates PFG in the scholarly landscape, noting it as a negative reaction to the work of Rudolf Bultmann, and setting it alongside the works of Dunn, Schreiner, Wolter, and Schnelle. Part Two consider a number of methodological issues from hermeneutics to history in six chapters. I found the discussion of Wright’s “critical realism” and its particular association with Ian Barbour of interest, as well as the critique in a couple of the essays of Wright’s exclusive focus on Pauline material on Paul to the exclusion of Lukan material.

Part Three focuses on contextual issues ranging from the Jewish context which plays such an important part in Wright’s work, particularly in a somewhat biting essay by James Charlesworth to a more irenic discussion of Wright’s lack of engagement with middle Platonism by Gregory Sterling. Wright conceded this latter critique in his response. Two other essays concern the cultic context and a significant essay by Seyoon Kim on Paul and the Roman empire.

Part Four is the longest section of the book, comprising twelve essays, on exegetical issues. I thought Gregory Tatum got Wright wrong in his chapter on law and covenant, attributing a forensic perspective to Wright more characteristic of his opponents. James D. G. Dunn takes Wright to task for how little he addresses the New Perspective.  Peter Stuhlmacher’s chapter on Wright’s understanding of justification and redemption is particularly outstanding for its discussion and critique of the ideas of exile and the role of Abraham in PFG.  There is also an essay on apocalyptic by Jorg Frey, highly critical of Wright’s account of apocalyptic in Paul, the one essay to which Wright responds at length in the epilogue.

Part Five concerns implications. Sven Ensminger’s work on Barth and Wright seemed to be mostly about his hero, Barth, with little engagement with Wright or Paul. More positively, Frank Macchia’s essay (and several others in this volume including Levison’s in Part Four) drew attention to Paul’s Pneumatology in Wright. Edith Humphrey extends Wright’s ideas about sacramentality and the sacraments. The final essay by Schnabel concerns both mission and the discussion of whether Paul’s experience on the Damascus road was one of conversion or call.

The concluding epilogue (Part Six) is devoted to Wright’s responses to the various essays in twelve sections. For the most part, the responses are gracious, acknowledging where the writer has challenged his thought helpfully, and sometimes, where the writer has misunderstood him, notably Frey, who gets ten pages of response. Often Wright’s response is to cite the length of his work and to go into matters further as some would have him would have resulted in a much longer, and perhaps more tedious work.

There are several strengths to this work, particularly the assessments from specialists of a number of claims Wright makes in his broad sweeping work. Also, one who has been around academics in scholarly conference will recognize the cut and thrust of serious scholarly work, where the function of critique is to refine and sharpen thinking.

The work demands close reading and one benefits greatly by having a copy of PFG at hand and having read it. I have to confess that I have only read summaries and reviews and so I honestly felt I was, for the most part, listening to one side of a nuanced conversation. What this collection underscored for me was what a singular work PFG is to evoke so much rigorous discussion from so many perspectives. Now to figure out when I can give a few months of careful attention to this work!

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through Edelweiss. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Chomsky, Evangelicals, and a Letter to My Senator

Noam_Chomsky,_2004

By Duncan Rawlinson [CC BY 2.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons

On Friday, July 14 Salon posted an interview between Charles Derber and Noam Chomsky under the title “Noam Chomsky: The Left Needs to ‘Find Common Ground’ with Evangelical Christians.” I found it surprising that Chomsky would propose this and perhaps reflective of a certain desperation of the Left to recapture national influence. Reading on, I found that Chomsky had in mind progressive evangelicals like Jim Wallis, who would be sympathetic to many of the same causes those on the Left embrace. That, of course, makes sense and reflects a reality not apparent to many in the media, that evangelicalism is not monolithic, and that there are many who would not align, apart from a common faith in Christ, with the putative leaders of evangelicalism–Franklin Graham, James Dobson et al. Still, I’m not sure that this is all that helpful and might only perpetuate the existing divides in our national life. I’d suggest something different that I have framed as a letter to the Democrat Senator from my state, Sherrod Brown. Here it is:

512px-Sherrod_Brown,_official_Senate_photo_portrait,_2007

Sherrod Brown, by United States Senate, Public Domain

Dear Senator Brown,

I’m writing to you in response to an interview with Noam Chomsky suggesting that the Left in our country reach out to evangelicals. I’m one of them, an Ohio resident, and I think that is a good idea, with a few cautions.

The first is that the worst thing, at least for the health and vibrancy of evangelicalism, is to treat us as a political block. The alliances between some white evangelicals and the Right have alienated many of our youth who are leaving our churches in record numbers. Part of this is that we are a diverse body, particularly along generational lines, as well as along lines of ethnicity. It would be great if you could bring some of our younger and older leaders together, some of our black, Latino, Asian, and white leaders together, if for no other reason than to hear each other. It would certainly help you begin to appreciate the complexity of the real evangelical movement, and not simply the one its putative leaders represent.

It would help you to understand that many of us don’t recognize the “evangelicals” being portrayed in the media and among the intelligentsia. Many of us don’t have the time or access to readily counter those perceptions. In a church like mine, what energies we have are much more devoted to running our food pantry, hosting our community garden and free clinic, collecting school supplies for a growing number of children from low income households and figuring out how to stretch what resources we have further if our country decides to further eliminate some of the safety nets on which those on the margins have relied. We know you care about such things as well.

It would help if you to understood that evangelicals have had reason to be nervous about religious liberties, and responsive to appeals to uphold these. When Bernie Sanders questions Russell Vought, a nominee for deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget on his religious views, in violation of Article VI of the Constitution and does so unchecked, it worries us. When religious student organizations on university campuses have faced de-recognition and loss of privileges simply because they wished to choose leaders who affirmed their religious beliefs, it worries us. When an order of Catholic nuns are forced to include contraceptive coverage in their health plan, violating their deeply held beliefs, it worries us. Yet concerns for First Amendment freedoms extend far beyond us and could be a place for forging common ground as we protect conscience, association, a free press, dissent as well as religious belief.

We are often written off as anti-abortion rather than recognized for the deep care we have for an ethic of life. You might press us to be more consistent with that. How concerned are we to protect the lives of those across socio-economic lines and from childhood to old age? There are a number of us who are consistently pro-life and an important conversation might be had about how to protect the lives of our children in neighborhoods riven by drug overdoses and gun violence, and our elders whose lives may be shortened and made more painful by sub-standard care.

Evangelicals from Cincinnati to Oberlin were on the forefront of nineteenth century movements to end slavery and to advance women’s suffrage. In recent times, evangelicals in this state have been on the forefront of fights against human trafficking and other social causes. At the same time, we could learn from you about some of the structural challenges under-girding some of our most pressing social problems.

We would hope you might understand more of how important marriage and family are to us. Most of us don’t want to campaign against those who see these differently, but we do think families are important places in the formation of the character, faith, education, and vocational aspirations of our children. We sometimes feel that families, and parents are marginalized in some education systems by “experts” who sometimes disparage the values we teach in our homes. Many of us don’t want to eliminate public schools, but do want a greater sense of participation as stakeholders in the education of our children.

There is much more we could discuss, but one last area I might touch on is care for our creation. Christians are often disparaged for their ideas about creation (although here as elsewhere, our views are quite diverse), but this is in fact basic to better care for our planet because we understand we will have to give an account for the care of the creation to the Creator, as well as to our children and grand-children. We differ among us about climate science, but any of us who are conscientious about our faith recognize that in our care for the earth, as elsewhere, we must answer to God.

I do hope you will reach out to evangelicals, here in Ohio and elsewhere, not to win us over as an electoral block, but for our common interest in the good of the country. It could be one more of many steps in healing our divided land, and finding ways to pursue the common good, rather than particular goods.

Your fellow citizen,

Bob

 

 

 

 

 

Christian Scholars Review

CSR

Cover of the current issue of Christian Scholars Review

The most recent issue of the Christian Scholars Review (CSR) arrived in my mail the other day and it occurred to me that this might be a resource at least some who follow this blog might like to know of. For one thing, it may give you a clue as to where I hear about some of the books I review! The website for CSR describes its objective as follows:

“Established in 1970, Christian Scholar’s Review is a medium for communication among Christians who have been called to an academic vocation. Its primary objective is the publication of peer-reviewed scholarship and research, within and across the disciplines, that advances the integration of faith and learning and contributes to a broader and more unified understanding of the nature of creation, culture, and vocation and the responsibilities of those whom God has created. It also provides a forum for discussion of pedagogical and theoretical issues related to Christian higher education. It invites contributions from Christian scholars of all historic traditions, and from others sympathetic to the task of religiously-informed scholarship, that advance the work of Christian academic communities and enhance mutual understanding with other religious and academic communities. “

The Review does not focus on a particular academic discipline but publishes peer reviewed articles exploring how thoughtful Christian academics connect their faith to whatever it is they are studying. Some issues center around a theme, like the environment or nuclear weapons. Others have several articles on drawn on divergent themes. The current issue includes the following articles:

  • Stephen V. Monsma – What is an Evangelical? And Does It Matter? [Abstract]
  • Judith Anderson – Doers of the Word: Shakespeare, Macbeth, and the Epistle of James [Abstract]
  • Michael Kugler – The Faun Beneath the Lamppost: When Christian Scholars Talk About the Enlightenment [Abstract]

There are a steady stream of articles on Christian higher education because the editorial team and many of the contributors work in this context. In addition, you will find responses to articles in previous issues, kind of an ongoing scholarly conversation similar to many academic journals.

One of my favorite parts of the Review are the reviews! Each issue includes an extended review or two. I write very concise reviews for the blog context. It is always interesting to see reviewers do a more extended review of something I’ve covered more briefly. In the current issue (XLVI:4, Summer 2017), there is a review of Modern Art and the Life of a Culture (which I reviewed here on May 24, 2016). Like most people, I read reviews for one of two reasons, either to find books I would like to read, or to learn about books that I won’t have the time or interest to read. This is a good place to find reviews of longer works connecting faith and academic life.

Why do I subscribe to Christian Scholars Review? I work with academics and grad students in a variety of disciplines, and while I can never hope to understand any of those disciplines as well as they can, over the years I’ve come across a number of articles that helped me see how Christian faith might address important questions in their disciplines and pointed me to resources they might explore around those questions.

Who else might find this helpful? First and most obvious would be any faculty or grad student who cares about the connection of faith and their academic work. I would suggest that even the articles concerning disciplines other than their own may well suggest resources for questions they face. Also, the interdisciplinary character of this journal helps in the recovery of a sense of the unity of knowledge in the fragmented multiversity.

I don’t think academics are the only ones who will find value in this journal. Pastors, particularly those in university towns, may benefit in seeing how others connect theological principles and convictions to subjects ranging from history to engineering, from literature to education. Any thoughtful Christian who wants to think both broadly and deeply about the world might find these article length treatments more accessible than lengthy books.

You may find information about subscribing to the Review at the Subscribe/Back Issues page on their website. Students providing an ID can subscribe for $15 a year, others for $24 (four issues). You can also order back issues and the website includes an index with links to a table of contents going back to 1995.

 

Review: The Qu’ran in Context

The Qu'ran in Context

The Qu’ran in Context, Mark Robert Anderson. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016.

Summary: A study by a Christian theologian of the Qu’ran in its seventh century AD context exploring its teachings in relation to Christian teaching, noting both similarities and points of divergence in the hope of encouraging open and honest dialogue between adherents of these two faiths.

There is a strand of public discourse, drawing both upon the ideas of Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations, and incidents of terror, that propose that there is a war or clash between Islam and the West, or at least between elements of Islamic cultures and the west. Then there are others who pursue perhaps a quieter conversation proposing that given the clashes that have occurred and a desire to maintain and protect a pluralist society recognizing freedom of conscience and belief, that some effort needs to be made between Christians and Muslims to find common ground. The most newsworthy was a statement by a group of Muslim clerics, “A Common Word,” with responses from other major religious bodies, calling for interfaith dialogue and action based on commonly shared teachings around the love of God and neighbor.

Some who would take the former view criticize, in my view justly, some of the efforts of dialogue that minimize or altogether mute differences or take at face value assertions about Islam without careful textual study. In The Qu’ran in Context Mark Robert Anderson offers a resource grounded in a Christian perspective that seeks to read the Qu’ran both sympathetically in its seventh century AD context, delineating its teachings, noting both similarities with Christian teaching and places where these diverge. He writes:

“My goal of encouraging dialogue should need little justification from a Christian
perspective. The psalmist says how pleased God is when brothers and sisters live together peaceably and the New Testament calls us to do all we can to be at peace with everyone (Ps 133:1-3, Rom 12:18, Heb 12:14). In our global village, that demands dialogue.

But true dialogue does not deny or minimize difference. Rather, it begins with an honest acknowledgement of difference no less than similarity. Without that, we cannot be truly heard and understood. Using the term neighbor in its broadest sense, Jesus commands us to treat our neighbor as we want her to treat us (Mt 7:12; cf. Lk 10:25-37). Paul also counsels us to do good to everyone, Christian or not (Gal 6:10). So we lovingly speak what we hold to be true and graciously listen as our Muslim brother or sister does likewise. And we remain ready, as Peter charges us, to offer a defense to anyone who seeks the reason for our hope, doing so with gentleness and reverence (1 Pet 3:15-16). So our truth telling is to be marked always by kindness and honor for our partner in dialogue—as a Thou, not an It, in Martin Buber’s terms.”

Anderson proceeds along the following lines to do this. Part One of his book looks at the origins of the Qu’ran and the history of Muhammad and his context. It is particularly fascinating to understand the tribal rivalries of the Arabian peninsula in this time and the mix of pagan religion and contexts with Jews and Christians through trade.

Part Two is the longest part and considers what Anderson calls the “Qu’ranic Worldview.” He explores the Qu’ran’s teaching about God, God’s immanence and transcendence, and justice and mercy. He explores Adam’s creation in an extra-terrestrial garden, and his fall, with Satan, and humanity’s reprieve from the judgment of God. He explores the concepts of sin and salvation, the ideas of prophethood, scripture, and revelation, and the devotional, social, and political dimensions of Qu’ranic spirituality. While noting points of similarity, he also contrasts the aloofness of God, the absence of grace, and the differing ways the two faiths engage the political realm, among a host of other differences.

Part Three focuses on Jesus in the Qu’ran: his origins and person, his words and works, his death, and the community he established. He shows how Jesus is both exalted and marginalized such that the supremacy of Muhammad as prophet is maintained. In particular, it highlights bizarre instances of miraculous works by the child Jesus, while showing him deferring to the disciples as an adult. He also explores the conflicting claims he finds in the Qu’ran about the death of Jesus.

Part Four then summarizes the discussion and explores the relation of Bible and Qu’ran, including the claim that the differences between the two may be accounted for by intentional distortions and falsifications by both Jews and Christians (even though these two were opposed to one another for most of the relevant history). He notes three critical biblical themes running through both testaments and contrasts these with the Qu’ran:

  • Friendship with God
  • The free grace of God
  • The humility of God

One place where I could see this work facing criticism is the approach, which Anderson, drawing on N. T. Wright, calls critical realism, approaching the text in its historic context and prevailing worldview. He does not ignore Muslim interpretive traditions, particularly where they differ from his reading of the text, but does significantly background these, while admitting evangelical and reformed presuppositions in reading the Christian scriptures. I suspect this may work fine where lay evangelicals are in dialogue with lay Muslims where the focus is comparative study of texts and discussion, but would be much more nuanced between scholars of both faiths, whose understandings are shaped by a millenia or more of interpretive tradition as well as study of the text in its context.

However, I would commend this as a helpful resource for interfaith discussions in universities and community contexts. It models both grace and forthrightness of approach without a combative spirit. While trying to meet the Qu’ran on its own terms, it doesn’t pretend to be less than what it is, “a Christian exploration.” Also, it demonstrates another truth often discovered through interfaith conversations: that participants may come to a deeper grasp of the contours of their own faith, as well as that of the other, through these encounters.

Might we avert the much touted clash of civilizations? That remains to be seen. Certainly, there will be violence in the name of religion. What Anderson’s book gives us is a picture of the real work and perhaps the harder struggle that must take place if adherents of Christianity and Islam are truly to understand each other’s sacred scriptures and beliefs, to find ways to co-exist, rather than to fight and seek to dominate each other.